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German Police State or: Why Can't Little Maxi go to the Ballermann?

German Police State or: Why Can't Little Maxi go to the Ballermann?

If I ever want to make a non-German laugh, I play the rule obsessed German card. It’s a weak move, but it works 9 times out of 10. The reason it works so well is that everyone outside Germany, and I mean everyone, knows that Germany is obsessed with rules and overregulation. This is possibly why the recent story of police stopping parents at airports and enquiring why their children were not in school, as the law demands, gained so much traction. Sure, the novelty of the story was a factor, but I strongly suspect it played well with the global belief that German bureaucracy is a Kafkaesque hellscape.

For those unaware of the story, it goes like this: in the days leading up to the Pentecost holiday, Bavarian police acted against potential child truancy. The form of this action was to stop parents with school age children at airports and question them about whether the children had an official exemption from school. Once details were confirmed, they were allowed to travel, with the agreement that when the parents returned they would present evidence that their children had such an exemption, or they could be liable for a fine as high as €1000.

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This may seem extreme to some, but it could have been worse; by law the police could have demanded the children be returned to their schools, effectively cancelling the holiday plans of many families. The fact that they didn’t could be considered leniency.

Even though much of the commentary and comments on the story were broadly in support of the police and the rule of law, there were still some who saw this as overreach and worst still, evidence of the burgeoning German police state. Some declared that parents know best, the state was treading on fundamental freedoms, only parents can decide what is best for their children. Others saw the rules as petty, better to ignore them and do as you please, then adhere to laws that make no sense. Who knew the real anarchists would be middle class families going on holiday to Spain?

One of the weakest arguments posited by the neo-anarchist kale consumers was that children learn nothing in the last week of school, they watch videos and play games. No education took place. In fact, travelling to a far away land would be a much better education for little Maximilian and Sofia. They can learn a new culture, possibly a language and come back as better people, far better than if they had been forced to sit in a classroom under the watchful gaze of some grey-haired disciplinarian. The reason this argument rings hollow is, that although some families may rush from their planes straight into the nearest national museum, art gallery or monument, many would be changing into swimsuits, ordering preposterous cocktails and doing it all in German. The pretence that a holiday to a resort destination or in winter, the ski slope, is some kind of cultural steroid is so devoid of logic, it feels almost pointless to argue with it. It’s basically like claiming you know all there is to know about global history because you’ve read Dan Brown’s back catalogue. Sun tans and holiday romances have their place, but it will hardly bring a child closer to acing the Abitur.

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Often when it comes to education and the laws that govern it, I defer to an expert, my wife. She is a Teacher, within the Gymnasium or the top of the three-tiered Bavarian school system. Unsurprisingly, my wife has little time for the outrage that came from some quarters. Yes, she diligently follows the rules and yes it drives me crazy sometimes, but when it comes to questions of education, she knows what she is about. She is not alone, meeting her colleagues, they too have a clear understanding of the rules and furthermore, they know why they exist. Sadly, for the conspiracy theorists, it’s not because they are the instruments of the police state, but because they are highly trained and highly skilled professionals.

When I asked her opinion, she made it clear; “The rules are for everyone, not just the poor”. Her point? Well, it wasn’t the underprivileged that were jetting off the foreign climes, it was often those with the money to afford it. Why should the law be adjusted for those who can afford it? Is that the system that works? Coming from a country that often seems to have descended into a one rule for the rich one for the poor society, I tend to agree.

She agreed that often there was little “serious” education in the weeks before school, but there was important work being done. The image of the sweltering classroom, with children being forced to watch an old VHS of The Never Ending Story, while the teacher dozes, feet resting on their desk is simply a fabrication of the minds of over entitled parents. In fact, there were various opportunities to take kids out of the classroom and teach them in different ways. My wife teaches English, among other subjects, and the last week can be used to teach her topic in a setting far removed from the classroom. I don’t want to over egg the pudding, but as a language professional myself, I know the benefits of activity-based education, taking real world language and placing it in different settings.

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On top of this are the social events that many schools host, allowing children to interact with each other in different contexts and promoting values that few would disagree with. Building a sense of school community is important to teachers and students, something that there is often little time to do during the “real” school timetable. These events are valuable, fostering interpersonal skills and collaboration. You may disagree or accuse me of being disingenuous, but that’s how she sees it and I can only concur.

In the end, what my wife, her colleagues and most people seem to agree on is that teaching children is a difficult task. They need the parents to work with them, to prepare children to succeed once they leave school. When parents remove children from school without permission, something that can be done through a simple process, they teach children that rules don’t have to apply to everyone. Perhaps the middleclass anarchist thinks differently, but the majority would agree that there are enough over entitled twats in the world, without people going out of their way to create more.

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